Editor's note: This guest post was written by Kate Harveston, blogger for Only Slightly Biased, and the views expressed may not necessarily represent those of The Centrist Project.
You probably learned in high school that the United States isn't a direct democracy -- there are members of Congress who represent the people of our nation. Congressmen are responsible for voting and lobbying in a way that serves people from a given district, but how are these districts formed?
People decide them — but you already knew that. In most states, the job of drawing district lines falls to the state legislature. The lines get redrawn following each census, and whatever political party is in power at that time gets to redraw the district lines.
Districts must have approximately the same number of inhabitants, but aside from that, lawmakers can draw the lines as they please. You can see where this is going — one look at a map of district lines in nearly any state will reveal attempts to include party-friendly neighborhoods and exclude opposing voters. This is gerrymandering.
It’s impossible to quantify exactly how much gerrymandering affects our elections. However, political scientists are getting better at estimating. Strategists for the Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly skilled at reshaping district borders, and as a result, we have districts that in some places duck and weave in and out of individual streets.
In 2012, the Democratic Party had a narrow 51 percent majority in the House. Of the 17 seats it would have taken for Democrats to achieve a majority, political scientists estimate that between five and 15 of them were lost because of gerrymandering.
Partisanship is an unavoidable aspect of our political system, but gerrymandering can amplify partisan feelings and affect voting behavior in the process. If, for example, you are a Democratic voter in a contentious district, you should (and likely will) visit the polls because you believe your vote matters.
However, when elected leaders redraw district boundaries so half of the voters who support a given party now live in a different district, and the other half are no longer enough to constitute a meaningful opposition, gerrymandering results in two hyper-partisan districts and guarantees two unfairly won votes. Instead of fair politics, the result is divisive rhetoric and a feeling of voter suppression.
Gerrymandering is a practice nearly as old as our democracy itself — the term gerrymandering was coined in 1812. The techniques state legislatures use to manage votes are called cracking and packing, and they’re very simple to understand.
Cracking a district involves splitting minority populations from one concentrated area to prevent them from achieving a significant thrust in the polls. Packing means cramming your party’s voters together in the same district using tactically placed lines.
While judgment calls must be made in any district redrafting, oversight to prevent these tactics would help ensure fairer election results. Instituting a committee to oversee gerrymandering shouldn't pose many challenges, assuming it wins the support of Congress.
All of this is an excellent example of how, while it's fun to make jokes about our national elected officials, American politics function on a largely local scale. If you want to make a difference, it starts with local government. Pay attention to what's going on, and you might find someone trying to manipulate your neighborhood or district.